Getting to Know

“The Big Boat”

Jeffrey Handfield’s vision changed the course of TCI history.

By Pastor Bradley Handfield ~ Images Courtesy Handfield Family

Jeffrey Lemond Handfield was a visionary man chosen by his Creator to do something special for his country, particularly the islands of Providenciales, North Caicos and Middle Caicos.

Jeffrey Handfield was also known as “Baba Jeff.”

My father, Jeffrey Handfield, was born in 1930, nine years before the start of World War II. As a result, his childhood and adolescent years were very economically challenging times throughout the world. Even more so for the Turks & Caicos Islands, which was under direct rule by the British Government and administered by a British governor stationed in Jamaica. My father used to talk of those tough times with vivid imagery. He would say, “Times were so hard that we used to eat cornmeal that was so old it was filled with worms, and we used to thank God for the worms because at least we were eating meat.” This was a result of the long time it took for supplies to be shipped from Jamaica to the Turks & Caicos Islands.

When my father was a boy, employment in the Caicos Islands was non-existent. He would say, “The only things for young men to do in those days were hooking conch and burning charcoal.” People used to depend on the land and the sea for their survival. The men were avid boatsmen and the boys dreamt of becoming just like their fathers.
The dream my father had was that one day he would own a “big boat,” meaning a large Caicos sloop. Boys in those days didn’t have many educational opportunities. In North Caicos there was only a little primary school in Bottle Creek, the settlement where my father lived. He attended the Bottle Creek Primary School until he was nine years old and in the third grade. (While I am writing this account, my son is nine years old and the thought of Dominion ending his education now makes me emotional.)

Once out of school the only thing for young Jeffrey to do was join his father as a crew on his fishing boat. At nine years old he had to learn to scull/row the dinghy boat using a long oar, and hook conchs using a water glass and a long pole with a hook at the end. Fathers and their sons would leave North Caicos on Monday morning and head for South Caicos where they would buy supplies for three weeks and then go from there to Ambergris Cay. At Ambergris Cay they would live in huts made from a local wood called “wattle” and the roof would be made from palm leaves. There they would stay, fishing and hooking conchs, then hanging them in the sun to dry. For three weeks they would do this work and they would give their product of dried fish and dried conch to the captain of the large sloops who would take it to Haiti to be sold at Cap Haitian. Back then, conchs would be sold in Haiti at a price of one dollar per one hundred conchs. This was the life of men and boys and this was how my father began dreaming of having a “big boat” of his own.

In order to find more lucrative means of employment, young men would have to migrate either to the Bahamas or the United States. As a young adult my father migrated to the Bahamas as a stowaway on one of the “big boats” that carried passengers to Nassau. Since my father’s name was not on the manifest as a passenger or crew member, he had to be smuggled into the Bahamas. This is my father’s account of how that happened: “When the boat reached Nassau it stopped at Hog Island, (now called Paradise Island), all the stowaways had to swim to shore on Hog Island to wait for nightfall. We reached Hog Island with our clothes soaking wet, the sun was hot and there was no shade, boats were passing by close to the shore, so to hide ourselves we dug holes in the sand and buried ourselves leaving only our face out so that we could breathe. We stayed there all day without food or water until the sun went below the horizon. At night a dinghy was sent to collect us and bring us to Potter’s Cay dock where we disappeared on the streets of Nassau.”

In Nassau there was a large population of Turks & Caicos Islanders who would help newcomers from TCI to settle in the Bahamas. Once linked with the TCI connection, my father made his way to Grand Bahama where there were many jobs in the pineyard. In Grand Bahama my father was hired as a saw man and his job was to operate one of the big saws that cut the pine trees into lumber.

It was customary in my father’s era that once a man reached a certain age and was able to find a means of income, that he should marry. My father returned from the Bahamas at age 21 decked out in fine clothes and his signature hat at three quarter pitch on his head. He was a handsome ebony man, who as he put it, “I used to dress to kill.” His sole intention upon returning home was to find himself a wife.

Courting was different back then. Once a man spotted the girl that he loved, he would write a letter to the parents of his prospective bride, asking permission to come to the family’s home to declare his intentions to the girl. So my father wrote a letter to my grandmother. Normally the letter would be addressed to the father of the girl, but my grandfather was deaf and mute and as such he could not read. The letter would read like this:
“Dear Mrs. Missick, my name is Jeffrey Handfield, I am from Belmont and my parents are James and Alrica Handfield. I am writing to you to let you know that your daughter Alma has caught my attention and I am deeply in love with her. I am hereby asking your permission to visit your home so that you can meet me and I can express my feelings to Alma and declare my desire to marry her. I write to you with great expectations of your approval of my request. Yours sincerely Jeffrey Lemond Handfield.”

Jeffrey Handfield and Alma Missick were married on June 17, 1952. When a man married he had to have a house to carry his new bride to. He could not carry her to his parents’ house to live, and back then there were no rental properties. As such my father had built his little house in Belmont and he took his bride home to build a family and a life together. He continued working in the Bahamas and making regular trips home to spend time with his growing family. All along he did not give up his dream of having his own “big boat.”

TCI artist Dwight Outten painted this picture of Jeffrey Handfield’s JAS Seaview.

My father often told us of how he received his vision for his “big boat” from an angel. All along he only had a dream, he had no clear vision of this boat he wanted. But one night after working hard at the sawmill in Pine Ridge, Grand Bahama, my father fell asleep on the floor of his cousin’s little clapboard house. Suddenly an angel descended from the ceiling. He stood in front of my father and said, “Jeffrey, you said you want to build a boat?” My father replied, “Yes sir.” The angel didn’t say anything else, instead he proceeded to make several hand gestures. He drew a straight line on the floor and wrote the number 65, he opened his arms and then wrote 18, he clasped his fingers together and bent his elbows, then made a sign with his fingers and wrote 2 feet. Once he made this last sign he disappeared through the ceiling as suddenly as he had appeared. My father awoke from this scenario and shared what had just happened with his cousin who was asleep on the bed. His cousin said to him, “Jeffery, you just received a vision from the Lord, you should write down everything the angel showed you before you forget.” My father did exactly that, he wrote down all that the angel had showed him. Then he realized that what he had been given were the dimensions and design for his boat.

Having been given such a clear vision my father was highly motivated to pursue his dream. He devised a strategy to have this vision come to fruition. He decided that he would stay in Grand Bahama and work for two more years and save as much money as he could. At the end of the two years he used his savings to purchase all the materials that he would need to build his boat. He sent the material home and returned to begin his project. Upon his return to North Caicos, he immediately solicited the help of his cousin Gifford Handfield, who was a professional boatbuilder. He set up the boat in his yard using local timber. When the boat was framed his cousin asked him if he was building Noah’s ark, because of the size and design of the boat. But this is where the story becomes more interesting.

My father had set out to build a sailing sloop which he would use to take the fishermen’s products to Haiti and bring back produce and other valuables from Haiti to be sold in North Caicos. However, while the boat was under construction, Mr. Liam McGuire, a British surveyor, was about to start constructing the roads in Providenciales, North Caicos and Middle Caicos. He had run into a huge problem. He needed to transport oil from South Caicos to these three islands and he could not find a boat in the Turks & Caicos Islands that could traverse the shallow waters of the Caicos Banks loaded with his fuel tanks. Fortunately, someone told him about the boat that my father was building and suggested that from the look of the boat it might be able to do the job.

Liam visited my father in North Caicos to have a look at his boat. He asked what the draft of the boat was and was told that the boat could manoeuvre in two feet of water loaded with cargo. Liam had found the boat that he was looking for! He negotiated with my father and the boat was contracted to carry the fuel between the islands before it was completed.
Another event of significance unfolded surrounding the hiring of the boat. As I said before, my father had set out to build a sailing vessel. Now that the boat would be carrying huge tanks on deck, it was impractical for sails to be used. Hence a new plan was devised to have customized engines made for this vessel in England. Liam undertook this effort and the engine was made in England to suit the design of my father’s vessel.

When my father was finished building the boat in 1968, it was one of the most exciting days of his life. But there was one problem. The boat had to be launched. It was problematic because my father had built it in his yard about 300 feet from the sea, and 30 feet above sea level. How would it be done without having the boat break in half? Back then they had no heavy equipment, no cranes, only ropes, ramps and come-a-longs. Old fashioned blocks and tackles.

Boat launches were one of the most festive occasions in the Islands. All the men were needed to help heave and pull, the women cooked and served food and drinks, the children looked on excitedly. The whole community of North and Middle Caicos came out to help and to have fun.

On the day of the launch my father was excited and worried—he had built a huge ramp and put rollers in place to get the boat moving. He was afraid that the hill was too high and the boat was too heavy and it might break apart if it didn’t land in the water when it left the hill. Once the boat started moving quickly on the rollers there was no stopping her. Either she would land in the sea and be safe or hit the land and break apart.

Thankfully on that day, after praying and asking God for guidance and protection, the men began to pull as they chanted, the boat started moving, picking up speed with every pull of the ropes, faster and faster it went as she hit the slope of the hill. At the brink of the hill she left the ground and landed safely in the sea. My father went aboard, stood on the bow, lifted the bottle of champagne that he held in his hand and smacked it against the bow of the boat as he declared, “I christen you the AJ and S Seaview.”

The Seaview was taken to South Caicos where Mr. Totton Seymour installed the engine that had come from England and thus the AJ and S Seaview became the first motorized ship built in the Turks & Caicos Islands.

My father took considerable pride in the fact that his vessel was used to carry the oil from South Caicos to Providenciales, North Caicos and Middle Caicos so that the roads in these Islands could be constructed. He felt that God had chosen him to do something special for his country.

It is unfortunate that he died in February 2019 at the age of 88, feeling that his country had not recognized his pioneering contribution. Perhaps the Turks & Caicos National Museum should record my father’s contribution to maritime history of the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Bradley Handfield is pastor of Community Fellowship Centre Church on Providenciales and founder of Community Christian Academy.

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